Shifting Priorities to Teaching For Understanding

One of the major concepts from Project Zero Classroom was the notion of putting understanding as the focal point of our educational practice. Indeed, this is nothing new as we all hope to teach our subjects so that our students will understand (and appreciate!) it. What ends up happening is we tend to get bogged down by the details.

I went into the PZ summer program this year looking for strategies that will help my students more deeply understand my courses. What I realized after leaving is that a strategy is not what I was looking for, but rather trying to instill a disposition – or way of being – that will help students become more fully engaged in whatever they are learning. I’m just hoping that it will be my course, too!

To do that, one of the main ingredients is to reorient our classrooms into places that aid in understanding. Which brings us to a fundamental question, what the heck is understanding, anyway?

We have a sense that the word implies more than mere knowing or knowledge. After all, those two words seem to be more objects than anything – we possess knowledge but this also implies that we can lose knowledge, too. Thus, we loose knowing something. This also takes us back to our notions about “covering” material and also that some students “know” more than others and therefore resorts to a competitive-based model for education. We break down into mostly lectures, and assessments that look to capture snapshots at a specific time, rather than an arc of learning and evolving.

Understanding, therefore, has to do with an experience. We must experience our knowledge and apply it in some new way. Understanding implies a performance and to the end that the application of knowledge goes beyond the boundaries of what was previously only described as what was “known”. This indicates growth and understanding would describe the process of that growth taking place.

David Perkins in The Teaching for Understanding Guide lays this definition out much more succinctly that I can even state here.  Basically, understanding is a performance of knowledge; it is the application of knowledge in new ways. Understanding moves a person beyond their knowledge of a topic while at the same time celebrate it.

He differentiates understanding performances from routine performances, which reinforce knowledge of a particular topic or subject area. These are typically found in assessments like multiple-choice tests, true/false questions, or any other myriads of activities that look to confirm knowledge. These are the types of activities and assessments that are found in coverage-based curricula.

If we want our students to truly understand in our classes, we have to provide them with the opportunities to move beyond mere knowledge statements. They have to be able to create new applications of their knowledge and they have to be given the time and space to reflect on this growth. We also need to stop focusing our assessments on what they know and think about, to how they know and what they are thinking with.

Admittedly, these changes will not occur overnight. Like all new learning, such notions are fragile and take time to congeal and evolve into our practices. We can start by being aware and looking to our own thinking about our practices in our classes. If we can put understanding at the center in our classes, then all of our concerns, activities, and objectives align with this notion. What do we want our students to understand about our courses and in our classes?